Higher education and class

In a quick follow-up to the post on this blog of last night, the Higher Education Authority has released figures that show the extent to which in Ireland the children of so-called ‘higher professionals’ (mainly doctors and lawyers) are hugely over-represented in the student body in degree programmes that lead to professional qualification. ‘Higher professionals’ make up 3 per cent of the population, but their children account for 33 per cent of medical students and 23 per cent of law students.

Leaving aside for a moment the discussion about professions and training for professional qualifications, what this shows us is that higher education continues to entrench class divides rather than overcome them. This is remarkable after  more than a decade of ‘free fees’, and underscores the point made previously that the abolition of fees may actually have harmed equality rather than enhanced it, as the state was unable to provide proper resources and support for disadvantaged students in part because it was spending too much money on free fees for the middle classes.

But whether I am right or wrong in my analysis, it is unacceptable that the system of higher education should be reinforcing privilege and wealth. A tertiary sector that is not manifestly offering opportunities regardless of class and background is not doing its job in a modern society.  This should be a priority concern for us all as we look again at our strategy for higher education.

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13 Comments on “Higher education and class”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    So how do we resolve this? Ban doctor’s kids from becoming doctors?

    One of the interesting problem about the skilled trades in my opinion is that few teachers have trade quals but pretty much all of them went to uni – therefore they think it natural that everybody go to uni unless they are delinquents and then it’s to the woodwork class for you. I think that’s a disposition needing fixing a lot earlier than how to divvy up college places.

  2. Vincent Says:

    It is not so much that the higher professional is doing something correct, as that others are doing something very very very very wrong. The higher professional controls his kids education, rather than being controlled by the system. Most see the system as benign, some see it differently.

  3. I think Dowling has hit the nail on the head. Getting working class kids to college is much more complex than just free fee,s. I was a former employee of Ballymun partnership (and a very committed voluntary community worker, appointed to the board of Ballymun Regneration Ltd), and I am sure you know the efforts that are constantly being attempted by that community to improve college access to the kids, but the take up is very low, even in a free fee,s system.

    AS a former voluntary community director of Finglas Cabra partnership, I was quite disappointed at the lack of take up of college places by the Finglas Cabra areas despite a constant barrage of reports acknowledging certain initiatives as positive, and they may have been positive, but they did not result in a significant increase of local people attending college.

    In 1975 I left North Strand technical school with an A in honours maths (no certificate alas) in what was then the Intermediate certificate. As a member of the inner city community I now look back and believe the teachers made an assumption that none of us were capable of going to college. The fact is I did not even know that a leaving certificate existed, or indeed what it was.

    I don,t mean to slag off the teachers, as there were some lovely people there, but it seems to me you need to start a college education in primary school, and then continue that attitude through secondary. Clearly working with the parents also is a vital component to achieve this. The way I see it is, parents that have little or no formal education are not bad parents, they want their kids to go to college, they just don,t know how to do it.

    On the fee,s issue it is my contention that the controlling/professional classes resisted free fee,s because of class reasons, however it is ironic that they could all adjust their own views to take advantage of free fee,s. To me that displays the fact that the free fee,s issues can overcome class divide when it suits the rich, however it is clearly not the only solution for the poor.

    BTW I have been called an inverted snob.

  4. Mark Dennehy Says:

    Surely a decade of ‘free fees’ isn’t really much of a timespan to base any observations on; that’s not even half a generation.

    • Mark, I’m not sure I agree. A decade (or 12 years or so) is quite long enough to see some social impact, and indeed we have seen it: the main beneficiaries have (in a positive sense) been middle income groups, where the statistics are now quite different from what they were. The impact on the lower income groups has been negligible, and that is not because we need to give it much more time, but because no serious efforts have been made to support these, and no money has been spent on them. Free fees are too expensive when they focus resources on those who actually least need them. Although this was not intended, free fees have been a redistribution of resources from the poor to the better off.

      • Mark Dennehy Says:

        I truly cannot believe that, because I’ve *been* the poor who benefited from the free fees policy. But without someone to push college courses as an available option to those who have never had that option *at any point in recorded history*, a decade is simply not sufficient time to change deep-seated beliefs.

        I’m not jesting here – it really is a fundamental and deep belief that you’re talking about overcoming here, one which too many people trivialise because college was a default course for them.

  5. Mark Dennehy Says:

    And to offer a personal perspective, as I’ve said here before, my father was the first in his entire lineage to go to college. And he made very sure to take me into TCD as often as he could from when I was barely five or six years old, and tell me that was where I was going, and to demystify the place for me. And that’s what it takes, a lot of the time I think. I know that certainly, growing up before he went to college, it wouldn’t have been something I would have seen. At the time, people were still getting past the novelty of seeing the majority of students get to the leaving cert stage.

    I think you’re looking for a very, very, *very* fundamental social change on an incredibly short timescale, and from a very conservative population.

    More time required. We’re getting there, but slowly. And to a degree, we’ve gone from what college education used to be and towards factories for churning out McDegrees and thereby in effect taking what used to be the Leaving Cert and smearing it out over a further four years or so.

  6. Wendymr Says:

    Some interesting points here. The impact of teachers cannot be discounted, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if some teachers did – now or in the past – consciously or unconsciously assume that their students were unlikely to attend third-level education. From a personal perspective: I was the child of parents who both left school at fourteen (not the first in the extended family to go to university, as a younger brother of my father’s did go to TCD and qualified as a solicitor). I got a scholarship to a ‘good’ secondary school, but my parents assumed I’d get my Leaving and then apply for a bank or civil service job. University was never mentioned – until the careers teacher said something to my headmaster. I was called in to see the head teacher and encouraged to consider university. The headmaster phoned my parents and not only explained why he thought it was the right choice for me, but also let them know about the (then) income-related local authority grants. He then met with me again and filled in my university application. If not for that teacher’s persistence, I wouldn’t have set foot inside a university.

    Whatever the funding model, whatever the incentives offered, it’s essential that teachers at the secondary level are involved in helping kids to raise their aspirations – or direct them appropriately; how many kids in the fee-paying secondary sector know about apprenticeships, for example, or are encouraged to consider them if hands-on work suits their learning style? I don’t think I heard one word about apprenticeships in my time at secondary school.

  7. Mark Dowling Says:

    For me the error in free fees was that most of the people it was supposed to help weren’t paying fees anyway. If the money pumped into free fees had mitigated fees but expanded the availability of grants, a far greater financial barrier would have been removed.

    In any case, free fees was a dishonest exercise because it did not expressly forbid universities from adding on stealth fees (which as time went on became less and less stealthy). Of course, a ban on those would have led to a similar and equally grounded demand at the levels below.

  8. Barra Says:

    The message I took from the most comprehensive study done on this issue so far (O’Connell et al, 2004: Who Goes to College?) is that there has been a massive increase in admission rates, continuity in that class division in access is still very much part of the story but there has been an increase in participation in lower socio-economic groupings, and finally that the remaining problems to third level access are at secondary level.

    I don’t think its at all fair, or accurate to say that “free fees entrench class divide”.

    Last thing: anyone have a link to the actual HEA source/paper? Been looking for it but can’t find it!

    • Barra, it took me some time also to find this. To cut a long story short, it’s the annual student data information published by the HEA, and it’s here:

      Click to access HEAFacts0708.pdf

      If you go to p.69 you get this particular bit of information.

      I note your comment, but I’ll stick with what I said. You can look at it like this. Until free fees were introduced the money the state paid to support disadvantaged students amounted to approximately 20 per cent of its overall investment in HE (mainly through grants). At this stage, and including the free fees paid for persons from that background and grants, it amounts to approximately 5 per cent. In the most disadvantaged areas, including those very close to my university, the percentage of those participating in higher education has not increased at all since free fees were introduced; in one North Dublin area it has actually decreased. On the other hand, middle class participation has increased markedly, to a point where in many wealthier areas it is not pretty much 100 per cent.

      I’m afraid the evidence is pretty strong.

  9. Mark Dennehy Says:

    Actually, an interesting study might be whether this was the norm in Ireland. Certainly there’s sufficient anecdotal evidence of sons and daughters following their parents professional paths in life; ironically enough, those who would look at this data as a reason to change the free fees policy (ie. our representatives in Dail and Seanad Eireann), are in fact themselves one of the most celebrated examples of this, though there we speak of the dangers of political dynasties versus the advantage that watching the job from the inside gives to someone taking it up.

  10. Jason Says:


    Currently, I am studying at community college in Canada but after completed my college studies in software engineering I want to do Higher studies in software engineering, So I want to know is there any course in this college which helps me to complete my higher education in my education field ?

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